WASHINGTON, July 29, 2015 – The Senate Agriculture Committee is making the first move to rewrite the rules for school meals and other child nutrition programs. Republican Chairman Pat Roberts, who has been working with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow on a reauthorization bill, has scheduled a markup for Sept. 17.
The current law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, expires Sept. 30, but it’s not unusual for Congress to be tardy in enacting reauthorization measures. A short-term extension could easily be included with the continuing resolution that Congress will have to pass to keep the government operating when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Roberts and Stabenow started work on the bill with significant differences. Stabenow has made it clear that she wants to preserve the existing standards for school meals. But Roberts said he intended to work together with Stabenow, and it appears he has done so.
One lobbyist, speaking on background, said that every time she goes to the committee to talk about her group’s priority issues the top staffers on the issue for Roberts and Stabenow – Julian Baer and Jacqlyn Schneider, respectively – show up together. Roberts and Stabenow “are working very closely together,” the lobbyist said.
Roberts emphasized in a statement announcing the Sept. 17 markup that schools are demanding “flexibility” in implementing the nutrition standards that the Agriculture Department imposed as a result of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. He defined that as meaning that “we protect the gains already achieved by many school districts and provide assistance to other districts so all students will have healthy, filling meals.”
Roberts faces demands to increase reimbursement for school meals and child-care programs to meet the higher costs of more healthful offerings. Funding was a major challenge when the current law was written in 2010, too. Lawmakers found the money they needed by shortening a temporary increase in food-stamp benefits - enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus bill. Lawmakers don’t have anything like that pot of money to dip into this time.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service programs, also is lobbying for some changes to the nutrition standards. SNA says it should be left to schools to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable at every meal. SNA also wants to roll back the new requirement that all grains served to kids be “whole-grain rich.”
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